I’ve just returned from three days at Space Camp with my 12-year-old son Matthew and his sixth-grade class.
As long as I can remember knowing about the Marshall Space Flight Center I’ve wanted to go; to see the Rocket Park and the museum. I’ve made pilgrimmages to Houston and Canaveral, but this was my maiden voyage to Redstone-land.
Yet, it’s not the extraordinary interactive exhibits, the glimpses of Space Academy simulations or the huge actual rockets (including a space shuttle, Saturns V and I-B, Titan, Atlas and several Redstones) that have left the most lasting impression. It isn’t designing and making a rocket from a paper tube or a hot-air balloon from tissue paper and paste. It isn’t the two IMAX movies or the technology or even the chutzpah of the pioneers of space.
It’s the Space Camp counselors.
And their diversity. Not just in race, gender, size, shape, innovation, flexibility, knowledge of their material and personality. What impresses me most is the diversity in the two most important areas: their love for the kids, and their passion for telling the story of the space program.
Robert took us boys and parent-chaperones to our quarters in the Habitat. He’s a by-the-book guy: fall-in, count off, zip it when ordered. He was new, and referred frequently to his prompt cards. His job was to communicate a certain amount of material to his charges, and they were not there to prevent him from doing his job.
Steve, on the other had, adored the kids. His fall-in call was “Kool-Aid!” and their loud response was “Oh, YEAH!” He knew his museum by heart and shared it the same way.
The 77 kids from both campuses of my son’s school – and all the parent-chaperones – were parsed into three groups. Our group (the self-named “Space Monkeys”) was assigned to Tammy the first day, to Ashley most of the second day, and to Tammy again in the evening. Soft-spoken Ashley’s fall-in call (they each had their own) was “Can you hear me now?” and our response was “Loud and CLEAR!” Though she was new and still referred to her cards often, she telegraphed her enthusiasm for the subject. She reversed the definitions of “rendezvous” and “docking,” but she had a great example that the kids could act out.
Tammy didn’t have a fall-in call. She didn’t need one. The kids just seemed to know from her non-verbals what she wanted and needed them to do, and they fell in because she was willing to completely re-do their schedule on the spot so they could spend cold-and-wet weather time indoors and visit Rocket Park when it was warm and sunny.
I heard other counselors as we wandered the museum during the “Museum Search” time. I encountered one young lady in particular who knew more about rocketry and more about the space program than anyone at the Smithsonian or NASA. Her delivery was absolutely arresting. She held the children in her group spellbound, telling all the little inside stories: Alan Shepherd’s bladder dilemma atop the Mercury/Redstone stack … Gus Grissom’s difficulties with blown hatches and corned-beef sandwiches … John Young’s attempt at the highest jump ever on the moon in a spacesuit that weighed only 30 pounds there, but still had 180 pounds of inertia. She could and would answer each question. I would tell you her name, but my eyes never left hers to see her name tag.
You could tell the true believers from the self-deceivers in a matter of moments.
You could almost predict which ones would wash out in weeks, and which ones would still be docents well into retirement age, as many of the museum docents were.
And, inevitably, I had to ask myself: How do I come across when I’m sharing the Story?
The Story I’m compelled to tell is not a story of space and time, but of unbounded love and eternity. Do I tell it with passion? Do I put it into action? Do I check my crib sheets too often? Do I cherish each listener?
Or am I just doing a job and trying to keep the rowdy in line?